when is a photography gallery not a photography gallery?

I travelled down to Plymouth last Friday, to take part in – well, I’m not sure what it was really, and the event was all the better for that.  It was organised by geographers Caitlin DeSilvey and James Ryan with photographer Steven Bond, as part of their Small is Beautiful? research project, and it was held at the South West Image Bank.  What was so interesting for me was that, in previewing the event, I was pretty sure I knew the kind of thing it would be; and I was almost completely mistaken.

So, Caitlin had told me that there would be a discussion of the photographs that Steven had been taking as part of the Small is Beautiful? project, which is looking at “the material cultures associated with the making and mending of everyday objects in the South West of England, to quote its blog.  She kindly sent me a sneak preview of the photographs on a cd, and a pdf of the folded leaflet that would be given to visitors as they looked at the photos in the gallery.  The photographs are really striking.  Grouped in sets of three around themes such as “patina”, “landscapes” and “together”, they are fairly small but rigorously composed, rather abstract and in beautiful colour; as Jo in the discussion said, some of them were so seductive that they made her want to jump into what was pictured.

So, quite formally composed, abstracted photographs; accompanied by equally lyrical but rather cool text (to me, anyway); shown in a gallery with white walls and free wine and nibbles.  As I jotted down things I might say in the discussion, I focussed on the formal qualities of the images, the leaflet and the gallery space.  I was all ready to explore the interesting tension between the mess pictured in the photographs and the artfulness of the photographs, and to discuss whether the former made the latter look like work too, or if the latter made the former too artful.  That is, I was ready with the sort of formalist reading that white gallery spaces tend to induce.

But I never got a chance to talk about that.  The discussion of the exhibition – with James, Caitlin and Steven, plus a me and a couple of other visitors, and a couple of people who volunteered at the Image Bank – took off in a completely different direction.  The photographs acted as a brilliant and provocative springboard for some very vigorous discussion of the decline of craft skills and local shops prepared to sell one washer and a couple of nails; of the importance of emotion, particularly family feeling, to both the crafts pictured and the research project; and to the wider cultural and economic changes that threatened so many making and mending (work)shops now.  The discussion hovered around the photos like a hawk, sometimes quite distant from their visible content (at least as I saw them), and at other times swooping down into very specific discussions of the details of specific images.  And we were all fascinated by  the mounting of the photographs, which turned out to be bits of shower fitting stuck with velcro onto the walls; and the photos themselves, which were printed onto metal plates so that you could actually pick them up in the gallery and feel their weight (though you still had to wear gloves… even so, a pretty unusual experience).  The printing process had slightly cropped Steve’s images too.

Even though I frequently argue that just as important as the visual content of an image are the circumstances of its viewing, I am still surprised at that discussion, with its intense interest in the photographs generated for reasons entirely different from the usual engagement with images in galleries – which is, as Charlotte Klonk notes in her history of such spaces, about feeling an “experience”.  At the Image Bank last Friday, there was plenty of experiencing, but in the relation between the photographs and a very informed engagement with a specific, local material culture.  The white walls didn’t seem to matter, much, for a couple of hours.  It will be fascinating to see how the project’s other planned events also create new spaces for discussion and audiencing.

Klonk, C. (2009) Spaces of Experience: Art Gallery Interiors from 1800 to 2000. London: Yale University Press.

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